Friday, December 27, 2013

Curious search terms

Every year I summarise some of the more interesting search engine queries which brought people to this blog. There aren’t as many as in previous years because increasingly the specific query is no longer listed. I suspect this may be the last time I’ll be able to present this summary, which is a shame.

Perhaps it says something about my own reviewing style that a significant number of queries display a definitely categorical stance. These searchers are looking for something which reinforces their preconceptions and, one suspects, no alternative view will be tolarated. Poor James Fenimore Cooper comes in for stick. At completely different times, and from different places, there was:

last of the mohicans terrible book
last of the mohicans awful book
More modern writers also cop for criticism:
i disagree with william golding
why yann martel is a bad writer
Not everyone is so dogmatic, although their prejudices still manage to shine through:
bored with thus spake zarathustra
anybody not love gilead
At least the first searcher used "bored with" rather than the now ubiquitous "bored of". As usual, there are some searchers who are probably writing essays. In the second example here, the specific question the searcher has been set is obvious:
explain boneland by alan garner
what would be a symbol for the blindness by jose saramago
One feels for the poor student frantically skimming The Great Gatsby for the following quote. This would be one instance when it would be best if they had worked backwards:
when does it say nobody came in the great gatsby
And again there is a worrying lack of knowledge of their subject coming through. One fears for the grades of students who make the following searches:
outer darkness cormac mccormack
gilead/marilynne williamson
books that john steinbeck wrote
reviews the old service alan garner
At a certain period after their deaths, all writers tend to suffer a dip in popularity. In the case of Walker Percy, it may be happening now:
lancelon walker percy
is lancelon by walker percy second person point of view
It’s curious that two identical mis-spellings of Lancelot should occur. Again, these were at different times and from different locations. And Lancelon seems a lot less obvious than the actual title. You'd have thought it would be easier to get it right. Next we have this splendidly framed question, wrong in just about every respect and demonstrating perfectly the concept of the question for which the answer is unequivocally no:
was bartleby a conformists?
The lack of knowledge of the subject matter searchers are researching isn’t restricted to literature. Since Donald is a hero of mine, I particularly liked this one:
who plays Donald duck
As ever, sex provided a number of entry points (oo er missus) to the blog. Mostly, I am utterly perplexed why Google should send such enquirers towards my wholly dull and sexless blog:
debona ir blog .com/hom mad sex
straight wankers.blogspot.com
girls naked fighting each other
sex.animalise.dot.com
I suspect this one may refer to the famous Bates and Reed wrestling scene from Women in Love, but I’m fairly sure I’ve never mentioned either actor or the film itself on here, so why the searcher was sent here is baffling:
two naked men fight for a woman
At least this searcher seems to have a slightly higher-brow approach to the subject, judging by the invocation of the German philosopher. Or maybe he just confuses the letter u with the letter a...
kant sex
And it’s good to see that modern-day students have the same conscientious approach to both study and recreation that they did in my day:
literature related chat up lines
In this case, I do know why they were directed to my blog, because I have a series of great chat-up lines from Dostoevsky. I do hope the searcher didn’t use any of them, though, because they’re examples of how not to chat up a woman, like this example from The Gambler:
"Why or how I have come to love you I do not know. It may be that you are not altogether fair to look upon. Do you know, I am ignorant even as to what your face is like. In all probability, too, your heart is not comely, and it is possible that your mind is wholly ignoble."
Some searchers have at least raised their sights higher. This one is commendably specific:
blog do government censor spoleto festival art in charleston sc
While this one is a bit too generalised:
enlightenment hubris
If that searcher was looking for something to reinforce that concept they would be sorely disappointed by this blog, since I spend most of my time on here refuting that particularly stupid piece of anti-human prejudice. Those who espouse that sort of rubbish conveniently refer to our creation of weapons of mass destruction without ever mentioning that, in the same period of time, we also found cures for disease and invented technologies to improve the lot of the whole of humankind. But this returns us to where we began: so often people seem to search for material that reinforces rather than challenges their beliefs. And that is sad.

Finally, the influence of predictive texting made its presence known with this offering:

briefing on a descent i to he'll review
It will be a shame if there aren’t sufficient specific queries next year to produce another round-up like this. I always enjoy these. I hope you do too.

Anyway, Hogmanay is nearly upon us, so stock up on your black bun and your lumps of coal and your hip flasks of whisky and get ready to indulge in a fine pagan festival of community and solidarity. A guid new year ain and a'.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Junky by William S. Burroughs

I’ve read William S. Burroughs’ debut novel Junky (1952) and Queer (1985) back-to-back because, despite the long period between their respective publications, they were written at more or less the same time and cover broadly the same period of Burroughs’s life. A review of Queer will follow – unfinished and massively flawed and arguably not in a complete enough state to warrant publication, it is still more interesting, from a literary point of view, than Junky. While I’m a big fan of Burroughs and think some of his prose is electrifying, I have to be honest and say I found Junky hard going. I’ve said before, in a review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that the trouble with stories about drugs is that you really have to have been there on the trip for it to be interesting – someone else’s second-hand stoner experiences are just too boring for words. I used to have to put up with a lot of it when I lived in Aberdeen and regularly took the Friday evening train south, along with all the oil rig workers who were fast-tracking themselves to oblivion before they got home to wife and family after a fortnight offshore. It hardened me against any so-called romance around getting yourself off your face on a regular basis.

We have Allen Ginsberg to blame for Junky seeing the light of day. Ginsberg was Burroughs’s unofficial editor at the time and managed to find a publisher for a novel which, because of its unflinching – and illegal – subject matter was pretty much considered unpublishable. Indeed, for the first edition, Burroughs even used the pseudonym William Lee.

And in fact it is actually surprising that the novel was published in 1952 at all. Those were, after all, dark times in America, when a deeply conservative tone had overtaken state affairs. The big bad Soviet Union would take on the role of the enemy without very comfortably, but there were, too, the enemies within, and junk heads would certainly qualify as that. We’re fortunate, then, to have Junky as a historical record. As that, it is certainly interesting: what Orwell was to British poverty in the 30s, Burroughs was to US narcotics in the 40s, a kind of Junked and Out in Mexico and New Orleans. A social record it is, then, but is it a novel or, more accurately, is it a good novel?

Will Self, in his introduction to the 2002 edition, writes:

By all of which you can take it as stated that in a very important sense I view Burroughs’s ‘Junky’ not to be a book about heroin addiction at all, anymore that I perceive Camus’s ‘The Fall’ (1956) to be about the legal profession, or Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ (1938) to be concerned with the problems of historical research. All three are works in which an alienated protagonist grapples with a world perceived as irretrievably external and irredeemably meaningless.
I see his point, and I can accept it. Nonetheless, he goes on: “The meat of the text of ‘Junky’ is as close as Burroughs could get to a factual account of his own experience of heroin.” And that is the difference, I think. Sartre’s and Camus’s works are undoubtedly fictions, their existential insights premised on an invented narrative in order to permit the investigation of universal truths. Junky examines in uncompromising detail the recent history of the author and that is where its focus truly lies – on that narrow ground of autobiography. Any extrapolation has to be done by the reader, using the reader’s knowledge and intuition and pyschological insight.

That is the case for any fiction, you may argue, and I would accept that, but I would also say that there is not as much insightful material in Junky from which the reader might reasonably make such leaps of imagination. Self concludes: “‘Junky’ is not a novel at all, it is a memoir”. I agree. Self avoids any contradiction between that statement and his comparison of the novel with the greats of existentialist fiction by suggesting it is Burroughs’s “janus-like” ability to turn fact into fiction that makes it simultaneously a memoir and a work of fiction: “For Burroughs, with his increasingly fluid view of reality, the confabulation of fact and fiction was inevitable, the separation of life and work impossible.”

Well, it’s a neat theory, and it sounds plausible at first, but does that really hold water? The more one reads that, the more it sounds like something cobbled together to tie together a theory. The bulk of the narrative of Junky doesn’t really work as fiction. The narrative framework as a whole doesn’t work. What we do see, however, are occasional glimpses of the genius in Burroughs that would emerge in future works: the sexuality, the curious obsession with different lifeforms and bodies being “taken over”, the slide into dystopian visions. Those glimpses never develop into anything meaty in Junky: they would, of course, in later works, and for that we must be very grateful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The greatest American novelist

Hurrah!

This series is back. This is inspired lunacy. It's the Guardian's attempt to pair off the greats of American literature, one against the other, in a series of head-to-head clashes until we have the last giant standing, the greatest American novelist. I love it because it's such a daft idea.

What I love about it most is that I can almost hear the fusty-breathed fulmination of the champions of academia about how impossible it is to compare one writer against another in this manner. And of course they're right. In this round we have Saul Bellow against Raymond Chandler. How can you begin to compare them? And if you think that's bad, in the next round we have Nabokov against my hero Kurt V. with his Breakfast of Champions (not my favourite, but who's gonna quibble with Kilgore Trout?) Vlad and Kurt just can't be compared. Which is why the whole thing is such fun.

And then again, maybe you can begin to compare them. Weren't Bellow and Chandler, in their own - massively different - ways superb psychoanalysers of their characters? Think of Pop and Woody in Bellow's "A Silver Dish", or Chandler's Philip Marlowe, or the hapless Moose Malloy, his amazing character from Farewell, My Lovely. And don't Nabokov and Vonnegut both force us to look at seemingly unarguable facts from a different, somewhat painful perspective?

Look hard enough and connections can always be found.

And meanwhile, enjoy the ride. However, if my own favourite, Carson McCullers, fails to beat Thomas Pynchon in the next round, I reserve the right to take my bat home and sulk. Especially since they've selected the wrong McCullers novel. The Member of the Wedding is a great novel, but it's not as great as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which can make you cry and laugh and applaud and scold all at the same time.

Happenstance and the luck of incompetence

The picture I use of the dancing skeletons for the top of my blog is a drawing I drew a long time ago, back in the late eighties, I'd guess.

It's a copy of the Ars Moriendi, the Dance of Death, from the Nuremberg Chronicles, which I studied for my BA dissertation on incunabula and illuminated manuscripts. I'm no artist, however, and when I got to the feet of the chap on the left I realised I'd run out of paper...

Rather than start again, like any self-respecting copyist, I improvised and shifted his left leg up and to the right, and his right leg likewise. Remarkably, I think the effect is to make my version better: it really does look like they're moving. It was a total fluke, fashioned by my incompetence at draughtsmanship, but I've always been rather fond of it.

And this is the original, from the magnificent Nuremberg Chronicles of 1493. It's a very important work, not least because it is essentially the first travel guide ever published. It included block illustrations of real-life scenes from Nuremberg and elsewhere. Until then, illustrations had largely been inventions, but the Nuremberg Chronicles give us the chance to see cityscapes as they really were.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Word inflation

As a local government bureaucrat in my day job, I'm well used to people using fancy language to dress up their reports and make them look more important than they are. Things are never done, they are facilitated. Tools are never used, they are utilised. Organisations we work with are strategic partners. And so on. I have lots of fun writing the most inconsequential rubbish in the most over-the-top language.

But I take my hat off to this item which I saw in Mountain Warehouse today, a hydration system.

It looks a lot like a water bottle to me....

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

William Burroughs and the place of the author in his own work

I’ve debated a fair bit of late about the role of the writer once he or she has completed their work. I’m of the opinion that the writer thereafter becomes an irrelevance, as does what that writer initially intended in their writing. What matters is the compact between reader and text.

William Burrough’s second novel, chronologically, was Queer, written (though unfinished) in 1952, almost simultaneously with his first novel, Junky. However, it wasn’t published until 1985, some 33 years later. As part of the introduction to that version, Burroughs wrote:

When I started to write [a] companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket ... The reason for this reluctance becomes clearer as I force myself to look: the book is motivated and formed by an event which is never mentioned, in fact is carefully avoided: the accidental shooting death of my wife, Joan, in September 1951.
The accident happened when, in a drunken state, Burroughs shot his wife through the head while trying to shoot a whiskey glass from it. In making this statement, then, Burroughs appears to be deliberately placing him and his history into the narrative. He continues: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death”.

Does all of this, then, negate my argument? Burroughs makes the clear, unambiguous connection between himself, his intent and the final text. And so the question arises: does that incident truly inform the narrative? In terms of the readers, and their experience of the text, does that make any difference? Would that reading experience be substantively different depending on whether or not the reader knew the background to the story?

In my opinion it makes no difference what Burroughs thinks. Indeed, what Burroughs thinks may be open to interpretation anyway. He declares that the accident is the unspoken hook for the novel, but is that truly the case? In his introduction to the revised text for the fiftieth anniversary publication of Queer, Oliver Harris casts some doubt on this. While, he argues, Burroughs’ introduction “framed the text with such a sensational context that it all but obscured both the fiction itself and any other reality behind it”, he nonetheless feels it is both “possible and necessary” to separate the truth from the fiction.

He suggests that there is a sense that Burroughs “muddles up the written with the circumstances of writing”. What is in the text is not necessarily what happened, or at least how it happened, or when it happened. He quotes Burroughs’ own explanation for the difference in tone between Queer and Junky, written only shortly before and featuring the same characters: “Part one [Junky] is on the junk, part two [Queer] is off.” But this is not strictly true, says Harris: Burroughs was, in fact, on the junk when he wrote Queer. Thus, author and character are not interchangeable in the way that Burroughs would like to suggest. As for the shooting of Joan being intrinsic to the writing of the text, Harris casts doubt on this, too. But for Burroughs’ own contention that this was the case, few if any would have made such a connection. Moreover, the linking of Joan’s death to the real life events portrayed in the novel does not work: Joan died in late summer of 1951, while the events recreated in the novel did not occur until 1952.

Thus, although the author seeks to present a real-life frame for the work, it does not, in truth, bear close scrutiny. Whatever Burroughs' motivations for writing Queer, they make no difference to the reader. The text stands on its own.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster

James Wood once wrote of Paul Auster:
What Auster often [writes] … is the worst of both worlds: fake realism and shallow skepticism. The two weaknesses are related. Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched.
There is a great deal of truth in this. Although Auster is a dazzling writer, there is often something unfulfilling about his work, a sense of “so what”? Don DeLillo occasionally falls into the same territory, as did Donald Barthelme before them. The tricksiness of the postmodern posturing can overwhelm the narrative so that any pathos that might have been generated is dissipated. At least, that’s what I would normally say in a critique of Paul Auster. But not about Man in the Dark, his 2008 novel responding to American involvement in the Iraq war. Certainly, what we have here is classic Auster postmodernism but, where the tricks usually detract from the emotional resonance, here they work to wonderful effect. This is a sad novel which is moving and thought-provoking in equal measure.

We are in a “house of grieving wounded souls”. The narrator, 72 year old reviewer August Brill, is still mourning the death from cancer of his wife, Sonia. He has also suffered a shattered leg in a recent car crash and is bed bound. His 47 year old daughter, Miriam, has divorced and is chronically unhappy, having “slept alone for five years”. His granddaughter, Katya, 23, has suffered the traumatic loss of her boyfriend, a contractor in Iraq during the war who was abducted by terrorists and decapitated, this appalling act being recorded and posted on the internet. To lose loved ones to such insanity is bad enough: to be forced to watch it happen is unbearable. The family has fallen into, if not dysfunction, then certainly a profound melancholy. Insomnia oppresses both Brill and his granddaughter, and they compensate by watching films together, dozens of them, one after the other, three or four at a time. Sleeplessness is the family’s unhappy default. It is a desperate, painful situation.

Auster embarks on a typical foray into the postmodern, as the miserable and sleep-deprived Brill fills those dark, empty hours by inventing an alternative world in which America has descended into Civil War, the global war on terror made frighteningly local. California has ceded from the Union; so have fifteen other states. The Twin Towers are intact, but cities across America huddle beneath warfare between the newly federated states and the rump of the old USA. 80,000 people have died. Everything is fractured. Into this dystopia is thrust Brill’s character, Owen Brick. This unfortunate children’s entertainer goes to sleep in the America we know today, and wakes up in a hole in the ground in the other America, and finds himself part of a hideous, Hitchcockian plot. The war, he is told, has been invented by a single man, identified as August Brill, who is sitting in his home in Vermont and creating all this carnage. All the deaths are his responsibility, the bombing, the devastation. If Brick can kill him, then the horror that has befallen this version of America will cease. That, then, is his job: to assassinate Brill. But Brill, of course, in this postmodern flight of fancy, is Brick’s own creator. How can one kill the person who is manipulating you all along? Can the puppet turn on the puppet-master? We therefore find ourselves in a typically Austerian maze of impossibilities and fights with logic. All of this is designed to force us to consider the nature of truth and responsibility.

It is here that, so often in postmodernism, the story loses touch with the theme that presumably provoked the author to write it in the first place. The trick becomes everything; the words and the plot become self-serving, solipsistic, ultimately shallow. The reader ends up not caring: neither about the characters nor the situation nor the theme. In Man in the Dark, however, Auster avoids this descent into the banality of mere inventiveness. He does it by the most direct means possible, by returning us to the immediacy of the family crisis that originally provoked all of this carnage. Brill recounts to his granddaughter a moment when he came upon his wife unexpectedly and found her praying. He hadn’t known she had any belief, and she was embarrassed about it. But he relates her explanation:

She was walking down the street one afternoon... when all of a sudden a feeling of joy rose up inside her, an inexplicable, overwhelming joy. It was as if the entire universe were rushing into her body, she said, and in that instant she understood that everything was connected to everything else, that everyone in the world was connected to everyone else in the world, and this binding force, this power that held everything and everyone together, was God. That was the only word she could think of. God. Not a Jewish or Christian God, not the God of any religion, but God as the presence that animates all life.
Later, with all that happens to the family, she loses her faith in God the entity but the notion of a combined human spirit remained with her, and it remains in this novel, and it informs its beautiful final thirty pages or so. This godness that she experiences is undoubtedly Feuerbachian, and it is probably akin to the idea of, in Rudolf Otto’s phrase, the numinosum, the numinous spirit that pervades all human activity. There is, after all, something beautiful and utterly mysterious in life. And so, at the climax of the novel, the numinosum takes us out of postmodern imaginative flights of fancy into the corrosive confines of grief. It hurts. It bites. It lingers. We feel for Brick, a hack writer with no feel for plot or character, and we understand that his ordeal is oppressive, unceasing, and that his silly dystopian plot can never help assauge the pain that binds this family so tightly together. All of the action in this short novel takes place in a long, horrible, horrifying night. We feel it, we understand it. A fragile piece of humanity reaches out in search of companionship, succour, support. The reader wants to respond. The compact is made. It is beautiful.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has died.

I always refuse to say how the deaths of famous people make me feel, because I didn't know them and I can't presume to feel anything like real grief at their passing. But with Nelson Mandela I feel like I ought to make an exception.

This was the most remarkable person who has ever or will ever live in my lifetime. He was beautiful. The transition he oversaw in South Africa was miraculous. The lack of bitterness, rancour, need for revenge, they all speak of a magnificent human being. I aspire to such decency.

What a man.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Pulp! The Classics

Here's a great idea.

I was in Waterstone's today (rounding off a great trip out) and laughed out loud when I saw some of these on the shelves. What a fantastic idea - they're really funny and may just persuade people to buy the books. Far better than the fusty old portraits you usually get on classic book covers. I hope the publishers have lots of success with these.

You can check out the rest in the series here....

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

In my review of Madame Bovary below, I state that the link between reader and text becomes paramount, more so even than the link between reader and writer: once the writer has done his or her job and completed the text, their work is done. Patricia Duncker's brilliant Hallucinating Foucault attempts to present an alternative view, proposing an explicit connection between reader and writer, fashioned by the text, which acts as some form of conduit for that passage of intellectual interaction.

Hallucinating Foucault is a remarkable text, postmodern in the sense that it plays with perceptions of narrative yet operating within a wholly realist framework. It focuses on a fictional French author, Paul Michel, and his relationship with the genuine French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Sanity/insanity, community/isolation, love/loss, sex/death: these are the binary opposites which this novel explores. Add the tension between writer and reader and we have an extraordinary novel, a mere 178 pages which manages to present an astonishing amount of thought-provoking matter without ever losing the narrative drive one might expect from a more straightforward thriller. Given the title of the novel, the subject matter I describe above should not come as a surprise: Michel Foucault once said: “Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” Although he never actually appears in Hallucinating Foucault, he is nonetheless a principal character in it, and indeed he is the pivot around which the whole narrative swings. While madness suffuses Hallucinating Foucault, for Foucault himself it was relative. Indeed, he saw it as a social construct and thus subject to differing diagnoses according to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. We should expect, then, a nuanced analysis of insanity in any novel bearing his name, and this is indeed what we get in Hallucinating Foucault.

The unnamed narrator is a postgraduate student from Cambridge University whose doctoral thesis is on the fiction of Paul Michel. Initially, he takes the same view as me, that the author is irrelevant and everything is in the text. For that reason, his PhD subject is to be a study of the novels, not the novelist. Indeed, when he finally meets the novelist in person he makes this point to him forcibly, even as his actions are beginning to give the lie to his words.

Michel, we are told, was previously susceptible to unprovoked violent outburts and finally succumbed to a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown in 1968 whereafter he had been secured in a variety of mental institutions. As the novel begins, the narrator meets a young woman, The Germanist, whose doctoral research area is Schiller but who appears to have a detailed knowledge of Michel, too. Together, the pair grow more interested in the fate of the mysterious author and The Germanist persuades the narrator to travel to France to track him down. Thus begins the main element of the narrative. What follows is a beautiful and painful meditation on truth and narrative and love and loss.

Once in France, the narrator begins in Michel’s archive, where he uncovers a series of letters to Foucault which seem to indicate some strong relationship between the two. Ultimately, however, the narrator realises that these letters were never sent. He tracks Michel down to a mental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand and visits him. After a tricky start, the two become increasingly close, to the extent that, after a few weeks, the authorities agree that Michel can be released from the hospital on licence for two months. They travel to Nice, where they begin a homosexual relationship and the story develops towards its climax.

It gradually becomes a study of alienation and isolation and disconnection. At one point, discussing loneliness, Michel tells the narrator of: “the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference.” As such, Michel refuses to conform in any way. Even his homosexuality must be manifested in the way of an outsider: not for him the jeans and white tee-shirt uniform of the bar-room gays. He "didn't give a shit what other people thought", we are told, and he would promenade on the beach with his arm round the narrator or kiss him as the mood took him. James Purdy, that old curmudgeon of American letters, would have been proud of him.

So we have madness, love, isolation, truth: all of this could become a bit of a mess unless there is something to hold it together So what does? As I have said, Foucault is the pivot of the novel and, in particular, one might usefully turn to his approach to the concept of parrhesia, “frankness” or “free speech”. This was a central notion in Foucault’s understanding of the mechanics of power and social inter-relationships. Two forms of parrhesia may be said to exist, and it is the second which is of particular interest in this novel. The first, political parrhesia, can be seen in the novel in Foucault’s and Michel’s participation in the riotous events of 1968, in which they spoke out against the prevailing culture and for the counter-culture. But it is the second form, philosophical parrhesia, which dominates the novel. In any analysis of power, there must be frank discourse. As Edward McGushin explains in his superb analysis of Foucault:

Ethical/philosophical parrhesia is a form of discourse that takes place in the context of care of the self. Ethical parrhesia is poetic in the sense that its purpose is to transform individuals – both those who speak it and those who listen to it. But the notion of parrhesia, especially in its philosophical form, challenges us to rethink the concept of truth.
And this is what we see in the relationships in this novel – the Germanist and the narrator, the narrator and Michel, Michel and Foucault and so on. There is truth-telling and there is concealment. True parrhesia will not allow concealment and so these relationships, however loving, are compromised. Nonetheless, they are borne of courage and there is something noble and beautiful about them. Foucault himself might have approved.

As well as this, the narrative is a vehicle for an exploration of the bond between writer and reader. For Paul Michel, that reader is personified by Michel Foucault, to whom he writes those unsent letters. “You ask me what I fear most,” he says in one of the letters, and explains that it is “the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” Later, we discover that there was another, equally important and this time genuine reader, “his English reader”. These are the people to whom Michel addresses his fiction. The message he relates is difficult. His prose is described by the narrator as emotionally detached. It contrasts with his true nature, he chides, which is much more open and friendly: “you’re the most passionate man I’ve ever met. And you’re nothing like what you write.” The pellucid nature of his prose is neatly mirrored by Duncker’s own, the novel being narrated in an unadorned and unaffected way. What emerges is a love story that transgresses the norms of society and is all the deeper for that.

In the end, though, I still hold to my view that the author is irrelevant. Talking of her novel, Duncker says: “I wanted it to be a love story... to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” The second sentence is undeniably true and I can empathise with it: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, those novels changed my life. But that sentiment doesn’t logically follow from her first sentence: the love is between readers and texts, not writers. I have no interest in Hardy, Grass or Marquez; something compelled them to write works of literature which resonate with me very powerfully, but it is the text, not the impulsion within the writer that connects with me. In Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker tries very hard to draw the writer into the narrative. It is beautifully done. It is indeed a fine love story. It resonates, it will linger long in the mind. But, in the end, that is the point: Hallucinating Foucault will linger in my mind. Not Patricia Duncker.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

When I was a boy I had a George Orwell fixation. I read his novels and his collected journalism and letters obsessively. For a while, every composition I wrote at school was based on Down and Out in Paris and London, tales of poverty and homelessness and the brutality of the casual ward. I remember getting a new English teacher who hadn’t heard the term casual ward and underlined it in one of my stories with “casualty ward?” suggested above it in red. I was scandalised that someone wouldn’t know what a casual ward was. I was furious, with all the sanctimonious rage that only a fifteen year old boy can muster. I learned much of my basic humanism from Orwell, as well as my left-leaning political outlook. It’s something of a surprise, then, to read Keep the Aspidistra Flying thirty years later and be surprised and disappointed by the sentiments espoused in it.

Literary modernism has a fraught relationship with humanity. There is a tendency to concentrate on the negative aspects of modernity, at the expense of the great advances we have made. In this formulation, the twentieth century was the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, not the double helix and antiobiotics. In 1920 Georg Lukacs described the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God”; George Orwell, meanwhile, wrote of Joyce’s Ulysses, “here is life without God. Just look at it!”.

Near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, wandering the streets of London while pondering what to do about his pregnant girlfriend, thinks:

He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom — bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.
The novel was published in 1936 and set in 1935, but both author and character are already clear that war is coming. Gordon reflects on this: “A curious thought had struck him. He did not any longer want that war to happen. It was the first time in months — years, perhaps — that he had thought of it and not wanted it.” This ambivalence about the nature of modernity and the future of humanity is instructive, suggestive of a deepening concern about our progress.

This, then, is the backdrop to a particularly sour novel. Although class remains to this day an issue in the UK – the Eton elite running their old boys’ network in government demonstrate that eloquently – it is impossible to comprehend the extent to which it dominated ordinary life in the 1930s. Gordon’s world is narrow and bigoted and wholly unpleasant and it informs his beliefs to a high degree. He is obsessed with the evil “Money God” which “dominates all aspects of life” and consequently dominates every aspect of this novel, too. We are told:

What he realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.
So we are back in the godless world Orwell identified in Joyce but as well as godless it appears soulless. The result is unedifying. Symbolic of the brutality of modern life is the aspidistra:
It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his aspidistra. The aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, the flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.
Money and class and decency thus become inextricably linked, and Gordon’s obsession grows to an unhealthy degree. He tells his girlfriend, Rosemary: "Don't you see that a man's whole personality is bound up with his income? His personality is his income. How can you be attractive to a girl when you've got no money?"

He refuses to conform. He “declares war” on money and refuses to allow it to rule his life the way it does everyone else’s. For this reason he gives up a good job in an advertising agency and instead works in a lowly paid bookshop. He is always profoundly short of money, counting out the pennies and the cigarettes until pay day, but he absolutely refuses to accept charity, other than borrowing from his long-suffering sister, Julia. This stubborness reaches its nadir during a day out with his girlfriend, Rosemary. He has very little money but Rosemary wants to go into the countryside for the day so they take a train out to Burnham Beaches. Unable to find a country pub in which to have lunch, they end up in an upmarket and expensive hotel and, because Gordon cannot bring himself to ask for something cheap, they end up buying from the ruinously expensive menu. This wipes out all of Gordon’s money and, because he refuses to allow Rosemary to pay for anything, they have no money for the return rail fare.

When Gordon does come into money, after one of his poems is bought by an American journal, it leads to disaster. His obsessions overwhelms him and he ends up blowing the whole £10 (two or three months’ wages) in one ghastly evening, getting outrageously drunk, attacking Rosemary, going with a prostitute and getting arrested for assaulting a policeman. His subsequent conviction results in him losing his job and his life spirals further downwards into squalor and penury.

All of this is told with a brutal inevitability and it causes a significant weakness in the novel. Gordon is such an unpleasant and self-obsessed person it is impossible to believe that Rosemary, an intelligent and self-assured woman, would remain with him. His behaviour is appalling. Indeed, in the aftermath of the disastrous night out he sexually assaults her. Yet, this is never even alluded to again. Instead, Orwell must continue with his plot in order to conclude his deliberations on money and the abject nature of modernity. It is overplayed. There is a didacticism about it which becomes unconvicing. The characters behave according to type, and their actions feel designed to force the narrative rather than deriving from any sense of realism.

Orwell apparently disliked this novel (although I am always wary of accepting writers’ opinions of their own works – Faulkner famously dismissed Sanctuary as a “terrible” potboiler, for example, although he knew perfectly well it was anything but). Indeed, Orwell professed to be “ashamed” of Keep the Aspidistra Flying because it was written purely because he was “desperate for money”. I think it is genuinely flawed because its thematic concerns become excessively laboured. It is almost the reverse of Steinbeck: Steinbeck is generally accused of sentimentality in his projections of human nature; in this novel, Orwell takes the opposite extreme. Somewhere between the two one might reach a genuine understanding of human nature and modernity. The result will not be wholly positive, but nor will it be as bleak as modern novelists have a tendency to suggest, and as we are presented with in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels is a witty, though ultimately muddled, philosophical novel which attempts to explore the nature and meaning of history, our story, the passing on of understanding and knowledge through generations, the development of religious sensibilities, the nature of good and evil. As you would expect from Davies, it is character rich and full of humorous set pieces. It also contains some longeurs and, in the end, doesn’t wholly convince.

Gnosticism sits at the heart of the novel although it is not, ultimately, a gnostic text. The rebel angels of the title are two middle-aged academics at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, a small college in a Canadian university. The rebel angels of gnostic theology after which they are named, come from a gnostic apocrypha. Maria, the central character in the novel, explains:

They were real angels, Samahazai and Azazel, and they betrayed the secrets of Heaven to King Solomon, and God threw them out of Heaven. There weren’t soreheaded egoists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene – taught everything...
This begins to tell us many of the central thematic concerns of the novel. We are exploring knowledge, plus the duality of good and bad and the relationship between mundane man and transcendental truth, whatever form that may take.

There are two narrators in the novel, with a slight disjunction in time between their narrative strands. The first is one of the rebel angels, Simon Darcourt, a college pastor, a good and honest man and someone apparently comfortable in his role as bachelor for life until he falls under the spell of the second narrator, Maria Magdalena Theotoky. She is a PhD candidate wrestling with the duality of her highly rationalist, evidence-based academic career and her gypsy family history, with its traditional gypsy appeal to ancient knowledge and traditions and ways of thinking. As we shall see, this dualism is a thread that runs through the novel. Maria’s tutor is Professor Clement Hollier, who is described as a paleopsychologist. This is defined as someone who investigates past ways of thinking, and so once again we are returned to the duality of modern rationalist thought and earlier, faith-based (in the broadest sense) beliefs. Hollier, too, is smitten by Maria and, indeed, on one occasion they consummated their desires on his couch. Much to Maria’s frustrations, Hollier never mentions this episode again, nor is it repeated. Hollier is the second of the rebel angels and another force for good.

Ranged against these angels of light are the forces of dark, in the shape of the two sources of negative energy in the novel, the “evil” monk Parlabane and the devious Renaissance scholar Urquhart McVarish. Together, this quintet form the principal characters in the novel, along with two members of the Cornish clan after whom the trilogy of which The Rebel Angels forms the first part is named. Francis Cornish is a recently deceased academic, whose exceptional and highly valuable estate is being overseen by trustees McVarish, Hollier and Darcourt. His nephew Arthur Cornish brings some much-needed business acumen to the proceedings. The McGuffin around which Davies builds his plot is an item of Cornish’s estate which both Hollier and McVarish recognise to be unique and priceless – letters by Francois Rabelais to Paracelsus which indicate his involvement in aspects of cabala – a Jewish mystic sect with similarities to gnosticism. This is stolen by McVarish, leaving a distraught Hollier, whose special area of literary expertise this is, and who wants the documents to provide the backbone for the PhD of his star student, feeling murderously inclined.

But plot, although it is rich and diverse and humorous enough, is secondary in this novel. Rather, it is a philosophical exploration of ideas. I have referred to duality more than once in this review and that is intentional, because the novel is a study in dualism. Gnosticism, of course, was a radically dualist religion, in that it opposed equal forces of good and bad. Gnostic theology, then, saw a dualism of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, mundane and transcendent, good and evil. And this is what we see throughout this novel, with the rebel angels ranged against the bad angels in a fight for ascendancy

We see it also in Maria. Even her name gives a sense of dualism: Mary is the Christian mother of Christ, while Theotoky, from the Greek, is a gypsy name which means bringer of Christ. Meanwhile Darcourt, one of the rebel angels, calls Maria his “Sophia”: in gnostic theology, Sophia, the bringer of wisdom, was paired alongside Christ in the succession of divine beings beneath God.

But the dualism portrayed in the novel is not merely gnostic. Rather, it moves beyond purely theological grounds into a more Jungian analysis of the nature of myth and history. In this, it becomes much more interesting. Thus, as we have already discussed, Maria battles her genes and her education, superstition and progress, lore and learning. This then becomes a key dualistic battleground in the novel. Hollier, the professor who investigates the thoughts of previous generations, explains:

“We tend to think human knowledge as progressive; because we know more and more, our parents and grandparents are back numbers. But a contrary theory is possible - that we simply recognize different things at different times and in different ways.”
This, of course, is very Jungian, suggestive of our collective unconscious. It recalls ancient thought systems such as the Aboriginal dreamtime, an innate knowledge that is buried deep inside us like the gnostic pneuma or divine spark. There is no doubt that, through the millennia, knowledge that might be of use to us today has been lost, while in many cases the sources of our understanding of aspects of the world have long since disappeared. Jung is often thought of as gnostic, unsurprisingly since he wrote on the subject so positively, but he was not: while, ontologically, he might have accepted a dualism of mind and matter, in terms of theology he was surely a monist. As such, he would have been greatly at home with the rebel angels of this novel, dancing as they do to the beat of a dualist battle of wills, overseen by the biggest rebel angel of them all.

The Rebel Angels is a lot of fun. It is far from a great novel. Maria’s mother, the larger-than-life gypsy mother-from-hell slides into caricature. All of the characters (even, ridiculously, the said mother-from-hell) speak with identical voices. There are long passages of didactic theorising and slice-of-life glimpses into academia which may amuse those who are in academia but leave cold those of us who aren’t. But overall the novel rises above these inconveniences. Simply, it is too much fun to be po-faced about. As the first of a trilogy, it certainly makes me want to read the rest. I already have the second on order from Amazon...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Every now and again I get an email about a post on this blog which gives my interpretation of a Shane McGowan song. These emails are generally intemperate, often furious, sometimes hilariously so. The rage which afflicts these people is remarkable. How dare I offer my own opinion on the meaning of St Shane’s song? How can I have the effrontery to try to interpret the words of the genius McGowan? I’m not going to deny Shane’s genius – A Pair of Brown Eyes is one of the most stunning anti-war songs I’ve ever heard – but to suggest that, once it has been written, no interpretation of a piece of literature is possible other than the writer’s own is simply nonsense. Once any work of art is in the public domain it is fair game. Shane McGowan wrote the song; everyone else is free to interpret it. There is no right or wrong to these things, only different interpretations based, to varying degrees, on textual evidence. It’s not Nietzsche’s fault, for example, that the Nazis cherry-picked his ideas and bastardised the bits they liked to fit their skewed worldview, while ignoring those inconvenient passages where he extols Jewishness and castigates the German character. Detailed textual analysis, in that instance, easily counters those banal and lazy Nazi interpretations.

But critical interpretations of literature must also be based, to an extent, on the knowledge and opinions and emotions and lifestyle of the individual interpreter. It is simply not conceivable to remove oneself from one’s own opinions: true objectivity is impossible. My reaction to a work like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, for example, will be fundamentally different from someone else’s because I have lived with an alcoholic and I therefore respond to the pernicious hold of alcoholism in a particular way. The point is that literature must always be a two-way communication between text and reader. The role – and even the original intention – of the writer becomes secondary.

I was reminded of these email exchanges when reading Madame Bovary. This was published in 1856 and was hugely controversial in its time. Its author, Gustave Flaubert, was tried for “outrage to public and religious morals and to morality” (although he was subsequently acquitted). The novel was an affront to decency and a danger to the moral fibre of the nation. This scarlet woman, Emma Bovary, whose outrageous behaviour is not criticised, even implicitly, by the scrupulously neutral narrator, would surely corrupt decent society? It is impossible, now, to be able to enter the mindset of French mid-nineteenth century bourgeois society and fully comprehend the horror they must have felt at the assault on their lives they considered this novel to represent. We know what they felt, but we can never really know how they felt. And it is important to remember this when analysing the character of Emma Bovary.

The truth is that we can never understand what Emma must have felt, enduring the tiresome existence forced on her by the conventions of the society of the day. It seems to me that a great deal of criticism of her character is unfair because it imposes anachronistic constraints upon her. It seems like a line has been taken by the history of literary criticism regarding Emma Bovary and, by and large, critics stick to it. She is a vapid and egotistical woman. AS Byatt, for example, says:

But if Emma Bovary - who is small-minded and confused and selfish - is tragic, it is not in a romantic way, and not because her readers share her feelings or sympathise with her. Our sympathy for her is like our sympathy for a bird the cat has brought in and maimed. It flutters, and it will die.
That is true to an extent, but it is not the whole story, not any longer. On the contrary, I believe, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is possible – indeed essential – to feel sympathy for Emma Bovary, a sympathy that goes beyond the pitying that Byatt describes here. Emma is undoubtedly small-minded and confused and selfish, and that does lead to tragedy – for herself, her husband and her daughter. On that basis, one might argue against a sympathetic response but I maintain this is unfair on Emma: for all her failings, and they are considerable, she is nonetheless a victim of circumstance.

Byatt does begin to get to the nub of this in her impressive analysis. She explains:

[Emma’s] name, and the title of the novel, define her as a person who is expected to behave in certain ways, fitting her station and function. She loses what individual identity she had.
This is the truth of it, and this is why she is deserving of more than our pity. Madame Bovary, remember, examines the excruciating boredom of bourgeois life in a provincial town in 1830s and 1840s France. Flaubert describes boredom like no other writer: to be able to convey such stultifying tedium without being boring oneself is a feat indeed. Coleridge once suggested: “it is not possible to imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourser, without repeating the effects of dullness and garrulity”. Flaubert gives the lie to this with his characterisation in Madame Bovary and, in particular, with his creation of the deathly dull Monsieur Homais, of whom more later. The atmosphere of provincial Yonville and Toste was deadly, the sense of propriety overwhelming, the formality unbending. Conversation largely comprised the endless recapitulation of cliché (Flaubert’s famous idées reçues). Meanwhile, Emma’s notions of romantic love, indeed her understanding of almost every aspect of ordinary life, are culled from the romantic fiction she read in the convent as a child. We are told at one point: "she remembered the heroines of books she had read, and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her”. With role models like these, what chance did Emma have? Emma is seduced, then, not so much by Rodolphe as by her naivete. But naivete is not a crime, and Emma should not be traduced because of it. AS Byatt notes of Henry James’s interpretation of the novel:
[he] expressed a recurrent unease which he said was experienced by the 'alien reader' and persisted. 'Our complaint is that Emma Bovary, in spite of the nature of her consciousness and in spite of her reflecting so much that of her creator, is really too small an affair.'
This is unfair. This is unfeeling. This smacks of the sentiments that would have been espoused by those – all men – around Emma who made her life so unbearable. It turns the character of Emma into a cliché where, more accurately, it is the role in society which she was forced to play that was clichéd. And Emma reacted against it, refused to conform to the cliché. For that reason hers is absolutely not a “small affair”: far from it. Byatt, too, disagrees with James, calling Emma “a type of Everywoman”, and she is correct in this. It may be going too far to say there is a nobility about Emma Bovary, but she is still more wronged than wrong. She is a sister to Edna Pontellier. From our twenty-first century vantage point it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest she is a sister to dear Tess Durbeyfield, a pure woman and my first true love. Flaubert, however, would not have intended his reader to make such an identification with his heroine.

Critics rightly observe that a principal object of Flaubert’s attention in the novel is romanticism. As we have seen, Emma is seduced from an early age by romantic notions, through her uncritical acceptance of the sentiments of her romantic novels. She is incapable of translating such notions into the brute reality of life and falls into ruinous decline as a result. However, as Jacqueline Merriam Paskow points out, unlike other nineteenth century adulteresses, there is a degree of authorial ambivalence concerning the outcome for Emma Bovary:

The eponymous heroines of Effie Briest (Fontane) and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) are punished for their marital trespasses by their husbands' vindictiveness, by society's scorn, and by their own feelings of guilt. And they suffer terrible consequences. Effie spends the rest of her life a virtual prisoner in her parents' house, excluded from society and deprived of the right to see her daughter. Anna commits suicide to end a life made unbearable by her husband's punitive behaviour and by her tortured conscience. But Emma, by far the most wayward of these three fictional adulteresses, is not repudiated by her husband. Nor is she ostracized as a fallen woman by those citizens of Yonville who know of her affairs. Nor, even, does she show signs of remorse for being an unfaithful wife, a negligent mother, an undisciplined housekeeper, or for lying, stealing, and behaving profligately.
Thus, while Madame Bovary undoubtedly offers a negative criticism of Romanticism, one should not overplay this. And nor should one infer that there is some concomitant advocacy of Enlightenment sensibilities. The fate of Emma Bovary certainly represents Flaubert’s rejection of Romanticism and its careless idealism, but Enlightenment thought is not unequivocably asserted in the novel either.

On the contrary, the entry relating to the Enlightenment in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia notes that, while Flaubert adopted rationalist sensibilities, he diverged from Enlightenment thought because, for him, “Education ... is not always the key to self-understanding.” This can be seen most strongly in Flaubert’s final, unfinished work, Bouvard and Pecuchet, but it is also very evident in Madame Bovary, particularly in the character of Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist and an unutterable bore, a character whose atheistic and rationalist outpourings are somewhat crudely – though always interestingly – overplayed in order to highlight Flaubert’s concerns on the matter. In this, it feels at times as though Flaubert is in direct dialogue with one of the most important early Enlightenment thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, like the Savoyard Vicar himself, Flaubert’s views are at times curiously contradictory.

M. Homais is depicted as a bore and a boor, trotting out his canards oblivious of the effect they are having on his audience. In this, he is an exemplification of the Rousseauian notion that that study of the arts and sciences ultimately binds us to blind conformity. Indeed, to reinforce the point, at one stage Homais even quotes from Rousseau’s Emile:

"It's my opinion that children ought to be taught by their mothers. It's an idea of Rousseau's, still a bit new, perhaps, but one that's bound to prevail in the end, like mother's milk and vaccination”.
Here, as before, it is clear that M. Homais is churning out well-rehearsed but little understood nuggets of knowledge. To an extent, Rousseau might have agreed with Flaubert’s characterisation of the pharmacist. In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences he claimed:
our minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved. Will it be said, that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No, gentlemen, the evils resulting from our vain curiosity are as old as the world.
M. Homais is the manifestation of that corruption of mind. He is, as Christopher Prendergast suggests, “the supreme incarnation of the endoxal”, that is he exemplifies the way a community or society clings to its orthodoxies and received wisdom in order to form its central beliefs. If Emma Bovary represents Flaubert’s dismissal of romanticism, then M. Homais undoubtedly performs the same function in relation to rationalism.

And this is an important point because, if there is a villain in Madame Bovary, then it is assuredly not Rodolphe or Léon, the men who seduced Emma, but M. Homais. His influence can be traced to every malign event in the novel, including Emma’s ability to procure the arsenic with which she ends her own life. And the novel does not conclude with Emma’s death, or even Charles’s grief and subsequent death. Why? Priscilla Meyer explains:

the villain of his novel is [Flaubert’s] bete noir, the idee reçue, the cliché, the unexamined view, and all the damage it can do. Madame Bovary ends not when Emma dies, but after the chemist of Yonville, Monsieur Homais, has received the Legion d'honneur.
So this, then, is Flaubert’s ultimate target: the small-minded individual, wedded to the pursuit of knowledge but understanding little, the rationalist who believes himself and humanity in general, as champions of all they survey. But this is a false target. In the same way Enlightenment thought was caricatured by its critics as mere positivism and thereby dismissed as shallow, Flaubert here adapts Rousseau’s critique in his Discourse and suggests that learning inevitably degenerates into the recycling of cliché. Thus, he ascribes to rationalism specific flaws in order to be able to point out those flaws and make the general inference that the concept itself must therefore be flawed. This is a straw man argument. Because there are some Monsieur Homaises in the world, it does not follow that all people of learning share his shallowness.

George Orwell adopts a similar technique in a novel which is worth examining in relation to Madame Bovary, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This was written in 1936, eighty years after Madame Bovary and 77 years before our present day, and it therefore acts as a midpoint between Flaubert’s world and ours. On that basis, it is instructive to examine the fate of women in these novels and in the present day.

Orwell’s point in the novel is to examine the malign nature of modernity and the way that modern life, with its emphasis on wealth and greed, corrupts personal aspirations. While one can acknowledge some validity in his point, it is ludicrously overplayed in the novel. In the central character, Gordon Comstock, Orwell creatures another straw man. Comstock is a person with virtually no redeeming features. When confronted with a decision one knows immediately he will choose the destructive option. He is incapable of positive action. He is bound from the novel’s opening scenes to the fate that befalls him at the end. It’s well enough written but, as with all straw men, it is entirely predictable.

And in the middle of this we have Gordon’s docile, much put-upon girlfriend, Rosemary Waterlow. The great weakness of this novel is that there is no convincing reason why Rosemary would want to stay with this boorish, solipsistic, selfish oaf. One sees this a lot in fiction, characters who put up with, even indulge other characters from whom, in real life, they would undoubtedly untangle themselves sooner rather than later. You might argue, for example, that Rose might genuinely have become infatuated with Pinkie (another straw man) in Brighton Rock despite him showing her positively no affection during their relationship because she was such a naïve, impressionable, almost child-like personality: it is conceivable that she could perhaps fall under the spell of such a man. But in Keep the Aspidistra Flying Rosemary is an intelligent, independent, confident woman of thirty. Why she would allow herself to be used in such a manner is beyond credibility.

We have seen the impossibility of Emma Bovary’s position within French bourgeois society. She had practically no opportunity to project her personality other than through her adulterous affairs. Was life any different in Britain eighty years later? Rosemary, the central female character in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, would no doubt argue she had greater opportunities and freedom than Emma Bovary but she is written in such a way that it is clear society has not progressed very far in those eighty years. Ostensibly, the principal theme of the novel is the fall of capitalism and the destruction that greed can wreak before that glorious event. Money, or the lack of it, is everywhere:

What Gordon realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion-the only felt religion-that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good.
But from our present-day vantage point something else intrudes. The treatment of the novel’s women – Rosemary plus Gordon’s sister Julia – is cavalierly high-handed. This is not some ironic statement about the battle of the sexes, either, let us be clear about that. Rosemary, the poor sap, is Gordon’s girl, and she is expected to act accordingly, becoming his trollop on a day in the country, acceding to his every wish. The whole mood of patriarchal ownership of the fair sex suffuses this novel, overwhelmingly so. When she notices that Gordon, arriving for one of their meetings, is unkempt and unshaved, we are told: “Her heart softened instantly, and yet she frowned. Why WON'T he take care of himself? was the thought in her mind.” What a good little lady she is, worrying after the welfare of her man. Because, “From Gordon, whom she adored, she put up with almost anything.” Well, that’s okay then. Which is just as well because later, in a drunken rage, he sexually assaults her in a darkened alley. But never mind, because when he’s truly down on his luck, and gets her pregnant into the bargain, she does what a little lady ought to do and stands by her man, marrying him reader. All of this makes you want to weep, most importantly because this deplorable state of affairs is not what Orwell was seeking to criticise in his novel. This is just incidental, because that’s the way it is.

One is left to wonder, then, which of these characters, Emma Bovary or Rosemary Waterlow, would be best equipped to exist in the modern world. For me the answer is clear: it is Emma Bovary, a thoroughly modern woman. One can imagine her adapting to modern sensibilities. One can imagine her thriving. Her petty need for niceties and property and “things” would, perhaps, be tempered by the fact they were more readily available. Her naivete would be mitigated by experience. Her adventurous temperament would be given room to breathe, would thrive in our modern world of opportunity.

Poor Rosemary, however, an essentially unreal and unbelievable character, would probably be exactly the same: one can see her in the same dead-end relationship, making the same mistakes, avoiding making the same obvious decisions. Wallflowers are wallflowers, whatever the era in which they exist, especially when they are created without without a consciousness of their own, designed solely to act as a foil to someone else.

And this is why Emma Bovary’s is not a small affair. And this is why she is deserving of sympathy. And this is why we must read her character in a way radically different from that intended by her creator, Gustave Flaubert. We know what they did not know, and we can predict that a transplanted Emma Bovary, living in twenty-first century England, would be a formidable and seductive prospect indeed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Araucaria

Araucaria has died. John Graham was the best crossword compiler of them all. His puzzles in The Guardian, particularly the Saturday specials, were an absolute delight, cunning and clever and witty and erudite.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hornsea, One Day

Brumous sky over Hornsea beach, low and heavy, dark and dreich.
Rock in the cliff face soft as soap: nothing is forever.
Beneath us sand dense as rock,
turning black as it extends into the distance,
grooved by the tide.

Heavy all around us, this air, this day, this moment, this us.
And we walk.
Walk.
We walk hand-in-hand in the grey of the morning;
it surrounds us, engulfs us, gives shape to our dreaming.

And the kiss, when it comes
is like no other before, like none ever to be.
In its moment none else can exist,
no beach, no sky, no sea, no you:
just us, just us. Yes.

From touch to release, from taste to breath
is the intensity of relief, of expectation fulfilled.
World’s wonder in a brief embrace,
lifetime’s sunshine in an instant:
this, my dear, is forever.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cabaret

It may have just been happenstance, but it was an apt coincidence that on the day Hull was named City of Culture for 2017, I attended a performance of Cabaret at the city’s New Theatre. Cabaret has long been one of my favourite films – and I speak as someone who generally detests musicals – so I was intrigued by this production. I was going to go when it was in London, starring Will Young and Michelle Ryan but, typically, waited too long to try to get tickets. So when I heard it was coming to Hull, still starring Will Young but with Siobhan Dillon in the role of Sally Bowles, I had to make sure I went. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages and, happily, it didn’t disappoint.

What I hadn’t realised was that the stage musical and the film version are significantly different. In the film, Brian is English and Sally American; in the play, the nationalities are reversed (and Brian is called Cliff). The play features a strong narrative strand involving Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz which doesn’t appear in the film, and nor do a number of their songs. Bob Fosse changed the focus of the film to concentrate on Sally Bowles as the central character and this was undoubtedly an inspired decision. The songs between Fraulein Schneider and Schultz are fine enough, but far less interesting than the Kit Kat Klub-based songs that comprise the film soundtrack.

I was curious – and dubious – about how they would manage to convey the terrifying sentiment of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. In the film version, this is one of the most chilling moments ever on celluloid, as the camera pans away to reveal the Nazi insignia on the angelic-looking boy’s sleeve.

How could they replicate that? The answer is: superbly. I won’t give it away in case people want to go and see it but it was brilliantly done and left me with a shiver down my spine as it brought the first act to a conclusion. The reprise, early in the second act, was equally impressive.

And, indeed, that is an important point about the production for me. In the first act, I thought it was a marvellous spectacle and I thought that Will Young, as the emcee, was excellent. Nonetheless, I did feel that he was concentrating on the comic aspects of the role to the detriment of the darker aspects of the emcee’s character that Joel Grey developed so brilliantly. However, as the second act unfolds the mood grows progressively grimmer, tracking the Nazis' inexorable rise to power, and Young responds accordingly. The emcee changes. The fun dissipates. Danger engulfs us. And if the end of act one was impressive, the end of act two is terrifying, as the Nazis win and the “degenerates” of the Kit Kat Klub, and anyone else deemed unGerman, are disposed of.

This is the glory of Cabaret for me, both the film and the play. Yes, we see the darkness of humanity, the depths to which it can descend. But that darkness is transient. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted barely twelve years. Humanity was restored. Love, humour, lust, companionship will survive, will revive, will reassert themselves. For all the apparent lowness of the lives of the dancers and regulars of the Kit Kat Klub, they represent humanity, glorious, unpredictable, bawdy humanity. And they will win. Always.

This production of Cabaret was terrific. The finest compliment I can give is that I wish I was there again tonight when they start tonight’s performance in about five minutes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing has died. I haven't read enough of her fiction. I was put off when I was young because it was being taught in my English class as propaganda and I reacted against it, but there is a true humanity to her writing which is intense and impressive. I intend to read more of her work.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Spire by William Golding

William Golding’s The Spire begins dramatically: “He was laughing, chin up, and shaking his head. God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass...” This explosion is not literal, then, but effected by a burst of light shining through the cathedral window. All the same, the idea of a godly explosion portends what is to come, and what unfolds in the novel is the inevitable destruction of a mind consumed by God and all his certainties without any concomitant mechanism for exploring God and his mysteries.

There is, in Christian theology, and in particular in Roman Catholic theology, an essential binary of faith and reason. However, this is not a binary opposition: rather, both are essential to a true religious sensibility and it can never be an either/or principle. Faith is about maintaining belief, reason about questioning the suppositions behind that belief. St Augustine referred to credo ut intelligam – I believe that I may understand – while Peter Abelard, a rationalist before his time, suggested instead intelligo ut credam – I understand that I may believe. Abelard also used a form of the Socratic dialogue to pursue arguments, with his sic et non – yes and no. For Abelard, reason took precedence, but faith was nonetheless essential. Augustine, too, saw the power of reason. Indeed, the quote I just mentioned more rightly continues thus (although one seldom sees it in this form): "I believe that I may understand; and I understand, the better to believe". With this, Augustine is establishing a clear relationship between these two poles of understanding. Nonetheless, he cannot accept that reason, alone, can bring harmony with God. “If you comprehend it, it is not God,” he says. Thus, faith and reason must co-exist. Pope John-Paul II explained this when he noted:

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth--in a word, to know Himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
His successor, Pope Benedict, also considered the duality of faith and reason to be central to the human experience, suggesting their relationship was “a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of all men."

Although I'm a non-believer, I can nonetheless accept Benedict’s contention here. Faith, however, undoubtedly was a key component of William Golding’s make up and the duality of faith and reason runs unmistakably through this, his sixth novel. The Spire takes a real building – the 404-foot spire of Salisbury Cathedral – but invents the man who created it – the fictional Dean Jocelin and the course of events that comprised its troubled construction. Thus, it is both true and not true, and we can both believe and disbelieve it. As we shall see, this duality is central to the novel.

Jocelin believes absolutely. The spire is being added to a cathedral which is built on insufficient – even, perhaps, almost non-existent – foundations, and Jocelin’s principal builder, Roger Mason, repeatedly warns him it is unsustainable. Indeed, Mason is so concerned he asks to be released from his agreement to build the spire but Jocelin refuses. It is a matter of faith. Jocelin believes he has been chosen by God and this is the act he has been chosen to complete. His belief is total, unswerving. It cannot be questioned, it cannot be tested. Ultimately, it overtakes all reason and he loses his sanity. As a result everything collapses around him – as, of course, symbolically we expect the spire must at the end. Obsessed by his mission, Jocelin neglects his duties. The cathedral falls into disrepair, even disuse, as services are removed elsewhere because of the noise and disruption. Around him, his relationships wither. Ultimately, a Church commission arrives to quiz him on his actions and he is found wanting and is stripped of his office. By now, too, he has succumbed to “consumption of the back and spine”, or tuberculosis, and by the novel’s end he is a much diminished man. Still, it seems, his obsession remains. His faith is total. Reason is not privileged. But by any measure – whether Roman Catholic or secular – his life ends in failure.

Roger Mason, meanwhile, is a man of reason who lacks faith. Early in their project, Jocelin would call out to his master builder, “What! Still no faith my son?” to which Mason would offer no reply. And so we can see that this duality between the two men truly is a binary opposition, as forces in conflict, and not, as the Catholic faith would contend, in harmony. The result is tragedy.

Is The Spire theerefore simply a debate about the nature – and need – for both faith and reason? It is undoubtedly that, and it debates those questions superbly. But it is more than that. Golding, of course, although he was much concerned with theological questions, resided among humanity, and he knew humanity, knew its strengths and great weaknesses. Thus, while the theological aspect of The Spire is undoubtedly central, profane themes run through the novel, too. There is adultery, perhaps even murder. There is a strong – and dangerous – strand of paganism running alongside the pious engineering for God. There are the manifold foibles of humanity.

And, for all his blind faith in his project, Jocelin is as flawed a human being as any of us. In particular, he is beset by sexual desire, most notably for Goody Pangall, the wife of the crippled and much maligned cathedral worker, Pangall. Jocelin is greatly distraught when he discovers Goody, whom he has idolised as a child of God, is having an affair with Roger Mason. Mason, meanwhile, overcome by his own problems, not least the impossibility of building the spire, succumbs to alcohol and ends the novel a drunken, suicidal wretch. The novel, then, is a combination of sacred and profane, known and unknown, true and untrue, good and bad. And all of this is premised on the twin facts of faith and reason.

There is and there must always be a mystery in human existence. This is not merely a matter of theology, although it is undoubtedly that. It is also an inescapable truth that we do not and cannot know what happens in Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”, the realm of the beyond, what is the true nature of death. Those who have only faith and who never seek to question that faith miss something essential in their lives. It is, after all, the nature of human beings to question things; it is how we progress as a species. And equally, people of a religious temperament would suggest, those who live by rationality alone miss something of the numinous beauty of existence. I would certainly agree that there is a mystery, but I do not privilege it in the way Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to do. In The Spire, there is no mystery for Jocelin, only the certainty of his endeavour. For the reader, however, there is mystery and ambiguity aplenty, as Golding seeks to confront us with the uncertainty of existence. His characteristic stream-of-consciousness style renders meaning opaque: thus, is Jocelin’s angel a real manifestation of his piety or a symptom of his tubercolosis? We do not definitively find out. Does the spire fall? We do not find out. Mystery. Mystery surrounds us because we cannot know everything. This is a useful corrective, perhaps, for hubristic notions of man’s superiority, although such notions are greatly overplayed in my estimation. And it may be that Golding, sceptic though he was, agrees. The greatest mystery, in the end, may not be the sacred one, but the profane.

I suggest this may be the case because, ultimately, the greatest mystery in The Spire is revealed to be Joceln’s own motivations. Throughout the novel we have been assured the building of the spire is a tribute to his faith and to the glory of God. In his final delirium, though, we understand that his motivations were more secular, a response to the sexual urges he has tried, with decreasing levels of success, to repress. Or do we? Or is this, too, a mis-speaking? We do not know. Mystery remains, as it must.

Golding himself accepts that point. Speaking of this novel, he suggests: “The writer is aware of that whole spectrum [of possible meanings or interpretations], but he doesn’t choose between them. What does the right choice matter, so long as the spectrum is there?”

The Spire is an astonishing novel. This review comes nowhere close to mining the seam of symbolism which it contains. It is a novel that needs to be read and re-read and possibly re-re-read in quick succession in order to begin to comprehend the nuances of meaning it contains. It is a work of utter genius.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

It’s a weird world Angela Carter creates in The Passion of New Eve: weird, unsettling and painful (especially if you’re a man). It’s a nightmare world unhinged from our reality but nonetheless revealing something about us in the process. We’re in a future-world, a dystopia in which America has fallen into civil war and California is ceding from the union and death and decay is everywhere around. The resulting satire circles round questions of race and sexuality and, primarily, gender, and analyses the relationship between history and myth, the passage of time, matters of historicity.

It begins with Evelyn, a male English professor moving to New York to take up an academic post. He is obsessed by a silent movie star, Tristessa de St Ange and, on his final night in England, he is fellated in a cinema while watching one of her films. He is not an enlightened man. His views on women appear to be antediluvian. From very early on, then, it is clear we are going to have a feminist satire and the normal narrative arc of such works would entail him enduring a painful learning experience. And so it turns out, although there is nothing normal or predictable about this novel. Rather, it is an intriguing examination of myths and men, if you'll pardon the literary pun.

Once in America, the story lurches into the bizarre, as the civil war unfolds in horrifying detail. Giant rats feed on the helpless. Depravity abounds. Death is everywhere. The triumph of western civilisation is at an end: “The age of reason is over,” a character tells Evelyn early on. Evelyn’s job falls through and he is thrust into the middle of the degradation around him. His only friend, an alchemist, is killed by a faction of rebels. He becomes embroiled with a black stripper and engages in a lusty, but emotionless affair with her. When she becomes pregnant she succumbs to a horrifyingly botched abortion and, as she lies in hospital requiring money for treatment, Evelyn abandons her. Written like this, the plot may sound a touch melodramatic but don’t be deterred because there is nothing predictable or even naturalistic about this novel. Perhaps its nearest relative may be the surreal fiction of Nathanael West and, like Balso Snell or A Cool Million, it all unfolds like a hideous, dreamlike trance. And it is now that Evelyn’s problems truly begin.

Out in the American desert, he falls into the clutches of a female cult based in the city of Beulah and led by the mysterious and troubling Mother. Here, the mysogynistic Evelyn is forced to confront his beliefs in the starkest way possible: Mother is a surgeon and, over the course of weeks, she turns Evelyn into Eve. “I am the Great Parricide, I am the Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe, I am Mama, Mama, Mama!” she declares. Eve is divested of his male sexual organs and given female ones; he is feminised and made beautiful. He becomes a she. Ultimately, Mother's aim is to impregnate him with his own sperm, already harvested, to create "the Messiah of the Antithesis" and usher in "the feminisation of Father Time".

Eve, as she is now exclusively referred to in the narrative, escapes, but falls into the clutches of a lunatic, one-eyed poet, Zero and is added to his harem of wives, being repeatedly raped and used and treated as a sub-human possession: the patriarchy lives on, then. The novel continues in similar vein, Eve rebounding from one disastrous situation to another. She learns to harness emotion. She learns love. She learns compassion. She learns to live.

Frankly, all of this could be tedious. It could easily become a heavy-handed essay in didacticism pointing out the feminine merits and masculine demerits. It was, after all, published in 1977, at something of a high point in militant feminism. But this novel is too clever for that, and Angela Carter is too good a novelist. For sure, there is a feminist message in the novel, and it is cleverly advanced, but there is considerably more to The Passion of New Eve than that. Any great novel must have a central theme, but there must also be undercurrents at play, too. And here there are undoubtedly undercurrents.

The novel explores the relationship between myth and history, and history and historicity, particularly in the United States, that country which appropriated and invented its own myths and established its own, wildly accelerated history. Carter writes at one point: “Historicity in America goes more quickly, jigs to a more ragged rhythm than the elegaic measures of the old world...” This is true, of course, and it shapes much of the American psyche and American discourse. The myth of the west, the notion of manifest destiny, the pursuit of American exceptionalism, they have all combined to help fashion the USA into what it is today. And, of course, there is a great deal of ambivalence about this in some quarters, and that very ambivalence feeds into the developing mythical structures that continue to underpin the country. As a European, I find this endlessly fascinating. I think, simultaneously, that Americans are far too hard on themselves and nowhere near hard enough. This contradiction, of course, lies at the heart of the giants of American literature, like Faulkner and, in a different way, Updike and, different again, Philip Roth. And it is absolutely crucial, too, to any understanding of Cormac McCarthy. Indeed, McCarthy may be the absolute master of this particular discourse: after all, is it not at the heart of virtually every pronouncement by judge Holden?

In The Passion of New Eve we see absolute chaos, such as there must have been in the American frontier of the 1840s and before. But here, of course, unlike the American west, there are women. And the women bring order; this may not be a bountiful or harmonious order – certainly for men, especially for Evelyn/Eve, and Mother is a monster on a par with the great albino judge himself – but order it is, all the same. The myths may never be conquered, then, never tamed, but they can be approached, and this is what happens here.

Further, these myths are universal ones. The first great myth in most myth cycles is, of course, the creation myth and that is represented here by the character of Eve. We have the virgin mother and the virgin birth. Mother is a conflation of any number of female deities. The Freudian sexual politics of Oedipus complex and Penis envy are played out in reverse, bringing freshness to a debate which can become dulled by overfamiliarity and oversimplification. In this way, the novel mines a rich mythical seam and explores depths of human psychology and history.

It isn’t an easy read, and I doubt it would make many people’s lists of their top ten books, but it has a power and fury and impulsion of its own.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The Gardener's Son

In my review of The Counselor below I mention Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Gardener's Son, which appeared on PBS in 1977. I now discover you can watch the whole programme on YouTube:

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Counselor: a Screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

This is a review of Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for the movie The Counselor, not the movie itself, which hasn’t opened in the UK yet and which I haven’t yet seen. With luck, the film may be better than the screenplay, although I’m not confident.

McCarthy has form when it comes to screenplay. Unfortunately, most of it is relegation form. There is The Gardener’s Son, of course, a PBS TV production from 1977 which is regarded by many as a quiet masterpiece, although to my mind it is desperately slow. Admittedly, I watched it in a freezing cold room in Texas which may have coloured my view somewhat. McCarthy has tried to produce film scripts before, too, with very little success. Both Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men began life as screenplays, and very poor ones at that. In the latter, Sheriff Bell and Llewelyn Moss, who never meet in the final novel (or the Coens’ subsequent Oscar-winning screenplay) triumph over a prototype Chigurh in a ridiculous shoot-'em-up ending. And then there’s "Whales and Men", an outpouring of didactic gloop about the cruelty of man and the inherency of evil and the doomed state of the planet. It is truly awful and, for that reason, has never been published.

The Counselor is not truly awful. It’s just poor. Earlier in the year, a pirated draft of it circulated and it caused heated debate in McCarthy circles. Was it genuine? Was it good? A great many knowledgeable Cormackians pronounced it must be fake because it was so bad. It was a fake, they felt, but a pretty good one, with many trademark McCarthy stock phrases and tropes evidencing someone who knew a great deal of the man’s oeuvre. Well, it subsequently emerged, it really was someone who knew a lot about his oeuvre, because it was genuine McCarthy. And now we find that the final published screenplay is little different from the earlier pirated version. So the debate continues: is it any good?

I have to say this offering would suggest the definite waning of a talent. There is little here that is interesting. There is even less that is original. Increasingly over his career McCarthy has shown himself incapable of moving on from his central preoccupations: the tendency of man to evil, the turning of fate, the slow, hideous inevitability of events once a course of actions has been set in train. Judge Holden intoned on these ideas memorably in Blood Meridian. And after a more secular sojourn in All the Pretty Horses, the subject was revisited ad nauseam in The Crossing, with the succession of identikit mystics all saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same voice. The road is the road. The destination is what it shall be. We are all but actors in a drama outside our understanding. Cities of the Plain continued in the same vein and then, in No Country, we had the interminable debate on fate and chance and the terrible, terrible coin toss of existence. In The Road we saw where that inevitable fate would lead us: perdition, the loss of it all, the apocalypse. McCarthy simply cannot move on. He is stuck in the same metaphysical impasse he first confronted nearly fifty years ago: “He wondered why a road should come to such a place.” The Counselor rehashes the same old ground and ends up on the same old road. It is McCarthy-lite, covering the same territory he has throughout his career, but without the gravitas.

None of this might matter if it was well written but, in terms of writing craft, it is difficult to argue for that. The plot is entirely predictable. It is well worn stuff. From the moment one of the central characters describes a particularly gruesome method of execution, for example, it is only a matter of time before he endures the same fate. Now, fair enough, this is only an extension of the Chekhov notion that if a pistol appears in Act 1 it must be fired in Act 3, but the hamfistedness of its delivery here is unacceptable. McCarthy got away with this predictability in No Country, because the relentless, malignant pursuit of Moss by Chigurh has a fascination of its own, but you can’t pull off the same trick twice and essentially that is what McCarthy has tried to do here.

In terms of dialogue, too, the screenplay suffers badly. There has always been a disjunction in McCarthy’s fiction between the highly natural, dialect-driven dialogue of ordinary characters and the high-flown oratorical style of the succession of prophets who walk among them. In the novels this just about works, with the exception of The Crossing, where it is simply over the top, and the epilogue of Cities of the Plain where McCarthy falls over completely into self-parody. Without the grandeur of the narrative which surrounds the dialogue in the novels, in this screenplay the high register language of the dialogue merely sounds bogus. We have, for example, a jeweler who, for no discernible reason turns metaphysical while describing the facets of a diamond and says:

What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth in that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or for ill.
It is entirely understandable why many McCarthy critics initially read this as a fake. The sad truth is that this reads like bad Cormac McCarthy, a parody that’s relatively acute but somehow not quite on the mark. However, the jeweler continues by talking about the treatment of Jewish people through the ages:
The heart of any culture is to be found in the nature of the hero. Who is that man who is revered. In the classical world it is the warrior. But in the western world it is the man of God. From Moses to Christ. The prophet. The penitent. Such a figure is unknown to the Greeks. Unheard of. Unimaginable. Because you can only have a man of god, not a man of gods. And this God is the God of the jewish people. There is no other God....
And on it goes, laboured and didactic and deadly, deadly dull. Again,it sounds like a hoax. The idea of “the hero”, in the Joseph Campbell interpretation of myth cycles relating to the heroic legends of different cultures, has been so much debated in McCarthy circles it has almost become a cliche, and here is McCarthy himself, at the fag-end of his career, apparently latching on to it. The monologue then goes on to matters theological. McCarthy’s play, The Stonemason, features similarly didactic pronouncements on the nature of religion, but interestingly some of the earlier drafts of that work (some of those, too, in screenplay form) are afflicted far worse by this blight. At least, then, McCarthy edited the worst excesses out. He did the same in The Road, the drafts of which are peppered with similarly leaden pronouncements on religion which fail to make the final cut. In The Counselor, this lack of restraint is damaging to the text.

The jeweler then goes on to conflate another two great McCarthian tropes, the stones of the ancients and the act of witness:

The stones themselves have their own view of things. Perhaps they are not so silent as you think. They were piped out of the earth in a time before any witness was, but here they are. Now who shall be their witness? We. We two. Here.... This is a cautionary stone.
Honestly, that is meaningless. It’s bad McCarthy. It’s nonsense, a weak parody of countless similar pronouncements elsewhere in McCarthy’s oeuvre. Other characters display similarly improbable speech patterns. Westray tells the Counselor at one point:
I think about my life. What have I ever done for the hapless, the hopless, the horsefucked? And I’m pretty skeptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling. I’ve pretty much seen it all, Counselor. And it’s all shit.
You may argue that this is a cogent critique of modernity and perhaps it is, to a particular, conservative way of thinking. But we’ve read this so often before in McCarthy there is nothing new to take from it. We seem to be listening to a perpetual jeremiad about the godlessness of modernity and the dangerous uncoupling of modern man from his spiritual roots. This is good material, for sure, but eventually a writer has to move onto something else. McCarthy never does. Westray continues for him:
But time is not going to stop, Counselor. It’s forever. And everything that exists will one day vanish. Forever. And it will take with it every explanation of it that was ever contrived. From Newton and Einstein to Homer and Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Every timeless creation. Your art and your poetry and your science are not even composed of smoke.
Once again, the hubris of humanity is laid bare: “Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.” We may aspire to the genius of science and the arts, philosophy, knowledge, but all of human ingenuity is but a fleeting instant in eternity, to be forever obliterated. “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

And then, of course, we come to the jefe. You always know you’re in for some cod-philosophising when a jefe turns up in McCarthy, some Mexican mysticism which reveals the horrors of the world. And so it turns out. The Counselor, who turns to him for help, asks if there is someone he can see. No, there isn’t, the jefe says:

I am afraid that there is no longer such a person. That is a thing of the past. I am afraid that there is no one to see.
The portentousness of this is almost laughable. It’s almost bathetic. It gets worse. Describing the violence in which they have become submerged, the jefe says:
Where the bodies are buried in the desert is a certain world, Counselor. Where they are simply left in the street is another. That is a country heretofore unknown to me. But it must have always been here, must it not?
Heretofore? Must it not? Only characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel speak like this. Again, one can see why people thought it was a fake. The jefe continues:
People are waiting. For what? At some point you must acknowledge that this new world is at last the world itself. There is not some other world.
This is straight from The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. Can one be derivative of oneself? McCarthy certainly seems to be. And, as you would expect, the jefe isn’t finished: McCarthy’s prophets seldom keep quiet for long:
It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.
Honestly. I’ve been living and breathing this stuff for the past five years. I’ve memorised chunks of text, and all of them say the same as this, only better. It is a tired rehash of exactly the same material that has obsessed McCarthy since Blood Meridian. Sadly, it appears that the author has run out of ideas and he has run out of ways of expressing them. For a long time I have harboured great hopes for McCarthy’s next novel, The Passenger. It’s set in New Orleans, we’re told, it’s long and sprawling. I’d hoped it might be a return to the style and preoccupations of Suttree, away from the ponderous religiosity of the western novels. On reading The Counselor, I am less confident about this but I maintain my hope that, unlike this screenplay, The Passenger will offer us something new.